Chapter 6 Love-at-Arms by Rafael Sabatini

THE AMOROUS DUKE
From a window of the Palace of Babbiano the Lord of Aquila watched the amazing bustle in the courtyard below, and at his side stood Fanfulla degli Arcipreti, whom he had summoned from Perugia with assurances that, Masuccio being dead, no peril now menaced him.

It was a week after that interview at which Gian Maria had made known his intentions to his cousin, and his Highness was now upon the point of setting out for Urbino, to perform the comedy of wooing the Lady Valentina. This was the explanation of that scurrying of servitors and pages, that parading of men-at-arms, and that stamping of horses and mules in the quadrangle below. Francesco watched the scene with a smile of some bitterness, his companion with one of supreme satisfaction.

“Praised be Heaven for having brought his Highness at last to a sense of his duty,” remarked the courtier.

“It has often happened to me,” said Francesco, disregarding his companion's words, “to malign the Fates for having brought me into the world a count. But in the future I shall give them thanks, for I see how much worse it might have been—I might have been born a prince, with a duchy to rule over. I might have been as that poor man, my cousin, a creature whose life is all pomp and no real dignity, all merry­making and no real mirth—loveless, isolated and vain.”

“But,” cried the amazed Fanfulla, “assuredly there are compensations?”

“You see that bustle. You know what it portends. What compensation can there be for that?”

“It is a question you should be the last to ask, my lord. You have seen the niece of Guidobaldo, and having seen her, can you still ask what compensation does this marriage offer Gian Maria?”

“Do you, then, not understand?” returned Aquila, with a wan smile. “Do you not see the tragedy of it? Is it nothing that two States, having found that this marriage would be mutually advantageous, have determined that it shall take place? That meanwhile the chief actors—the victims, I might almost call them—have no opportunity of selecting for themselves. Gian Maria goes about it resignedly. He will tell you that he has always known that some day he must wed and do his best to beget a son. He held out long enough against this alliance, but now that necessity is driving him at last, he goes about it much as he would go about any other State affair—a coronation, a banquet, or a ball. Can you wonder now that I would not accept the throne of Babbiano when it was offered me? I tell you, Fanfulla, that were I at present in my cousin's shoes, I would cast crown and purple at whomsoever had a fancy for them ere they crushed the life out of me and left me a poor puppet. Sooner than endure that hollow mockery of a life I would become a peasant or a vassal; I would delve the earth and lead a humble life, but lead it in my own way, and thank God for the freedom of it; choose my own comrades; live as I list, where I list; love as I list, where I list, and die when God pleases with the knowledge that my life had not been altogether barren. And that poor girl, Fanfulla! Think of her. She is to be joined in loveless union to such a gross, unfeeling clod as Gian Maria. Have you no pity for her?”

Fanfulla sighed, his brow clouded.

“I am not so dull but that I can see why you should reason thus to-day,” said he. “These thoughts have come to you since you have seen her.”

Franceseo sighed deeply.

“Who knows?” he made answer wistfully. “In the few moments that we talked together, in the little time that I beheld her, it may be that she dealt me a wound far deeper than the one to which she so mercifully sought to minister.”

Now for all that in what the Lord of Aquila said touching the projected union there was a deal of justice, yet when he asserted that the chief actors were to have no opportunity of selecting for themselves, he said too much. That opportunity they were to have. It occurred three days later at Urbino, when the Duke and Valentina were brought together at the banquet of welcome given by Guidobaldo to his intended nephew-in-law. The sight of her resplendent beauty came as a joyful shock to Gian Maria, and filled him with as much impatience to possess her as did his own gross ugliness render him offensive in her eyes. Averse had she been to this wedding from the moment that it had been broached to her. The sight of Gian Maria completed her loathing of the part assigned her, and in her heart she registered a vow that sooner than become the Duchess of Babbiano, she would return to her Convent of Santa Sofia and take the veil.

Gian Maria sat beside her at the banquet, and in the intervals of eating—which absorbed him mightily—he whispered compliments at which she shuddered and turned pale. The more strenuously did he strive to please, in his gross and clumsy fashion, the more did he succeed in repelling and disgusting her, until, in the end, with all his fatuousness, he came to deem her oddly cold. Of this, anon, he made complaint to that magnificent prince, her uncle. But Guidobaldo scoffed at his qualms.

“Do you account my niece a peasant girl?” he asked. “Would you have her smirk and squirm at every piece of flattery you utter? So that she weds your Highness what shall the rest signify?”

“I would she loved me a little,” complained Gian Maria foolishly.

Guidobaldo looked him over with an eye that smiled inscrutably, and it may have crossed his mind that this coarse, white-faced Duke was too ambitious.

“I doubt not that she will,” he answered, in tones as inscrutable as his glance. “So that you woo with grace and ardour, what woman could withstand your Highness? Be not put off by such modesty as becomes a maid.”

Those words of Guidobaldo's breathed new courage into him. Nor ever after could he think that her coldness was other than a cloak, a sort of maidenly garment behind which modesty bade her conceal the inclinations of her heart. Reasoning thus, and having in support of it his wondrous fatuity, it so befell that the more she shunned and avoided him, the more did he gather conviction of the intensity of her affection; the more loathing she betrayed, the more proof did it afford him of the consuming quality of her passion. In the end, he went even so far as to applaud and esteem in her this very maidenly conduct.

There were hunting-parties, hawking-parties, water-parties, banquets, comedies, balls, and revels of every description, and for a week all went well at Urbino. Then, as suddenly as if a cannon had been fired upon the Palace, the festivities were interrupted. The news that an envoy of Caesar Borgia's was at Babbiano with a message from his master came like a cold douche upon Gian Maria. It was borne to him in a letter from Fabrizio da Lodi, imploring his immediate return to treat with this plenipotentiary of Valentino's.

No longer did he disregard the peril that threatened him from the all-conquering Borgia, no longer deem exaggerated by his advisers the cause for fear. This sudden presence of Valentino's messenger, coming, too, at a time when it would almost seem as if the impending union with Urbino had spurred the Borgia to act before the alliance was established, filled him with apprehension.

In one of the princely chambers that had been set aside for his use during his visit to Urbino he discussed the tragic news with the two nobles who had accompanied him—Alvaro de Alvari and Gismondo Santi—and both of them, whilst urging him to take the advice of Lodi and return at once, urged him, too, to establish his betrothal ere he left.

“Bring the matter to an issue at once, your Highness,” said Santi, “and thus you will go back to Babbiano well-armed to meet the Duca Valentino's messenger.”

Readily accepting this advice, Gian Maria went in quest of Guidobaldo, and laid before him his proposals, together with the news which had arrived and which was the cause of the haste he now manifested. Guidobaldo listened gravely. In its way the news affected him as well, for he feared the might of Caesar Borgia as much as any man in Italy, and he was, by virtue of it, the readier to hasten forward an alliance which should bring another of the neighbouring states into the powerful coalition he was forming.

“It shall be as you wish,” answered him the gracious Lord of Urbino, “and the betrothal shall be proclaimed to-day, so that you can bear news of it to Valentino's messenger. When you have heard this envoy, deliver him an answer of such defiance or such caution as you please. Then return in ten days' time to Urbino, and all shall be ready for the nuptials. But, first of all, go you and tell Monna Valentina.”

Confident of success, Gian Maria obeyed his host, and went in quest of the lady. He gained her ante-chamber, and thence he despatched an idling page to request of her the honour of an audience.

As the youth passed through the door that led to the room beyond, Gian Maria caught for a moment the accents of an exquisite male voice singing a love-song to the accompaniment of a lute.

“Una donna più bella assai che 'l sole...”

came the words of Petrarch, and he heard them still, though muffled, for a moment or two after the boy had gone. Then it ceased abruptly, and a pause followed, at the end of which the page returned. Raising the portière of blue and gold, he invited Gian Maria to enter.

It was a room that spoke with eloquence of the wealth and refinement of Montefeltro, from the gilding and ultramarine of the vaulted ceiling with its carved frieze of delicately inlaid woodwork, to the priceless tapestries beneath it. Above a crimson prie-dieu hung a silver crucifix, the exquisite workmanship of the famous Anichino of Ferrara. Yonder stood an inlaid cabinet, surmounted by a crystal mirror and some wonders of Murano glass. There was a picture by Mantegna, some costly cameos and delicate enamels, an abundance of books, a dulcimer which a fair-haired page was examining with inquisitive eyes, and by a window on the right stood a very handsome harp that Guidobaldo had bought his niece in Venice.

In that choice apartment of hers the Duke found Valentina surrounded by her ladies, Peppe the fool, a couple of pages, and a half-dozen gentlemen of her uncle's court. One of these—that same Gonzaga who had escorted her from the Convent of Santa Sofia—most splendidly arrayed in white taby, his vest and doublet rich with gold, sat upon a low stool, idly fingering the lute in his lap, from which Gian Maria inferred that his had been the voice that had reached him in the ante-chamber.

At the Duke's advent they all rose saving Valentina and received him with a ceremony that somewhat chilled his ardour. He advanced; then halted clumsily, and in a clumsy manner framed a request that he might speak with her alone. In a tired, long-suffering way she dismissed that court of hers, and Gian Maria stood waiting until the last of them had passed out through the tall windows that abutted on to a delightful terrace, where, in the midst of a green square, a marble fountain flashed and glimmered in the sunlight.

“Lady,” he said, when they were at last alone, “I have news from Babbiano that demands my instant return.” And he approached her by another step.

In truth he was a dull-witted fellow or else too blinded by fatuity to see and interpret aright the sudden sparkle in her eye, the sudden, unmistakable expression of relief that spread itself upon her face.

“My lord,” she answered, in a low, collected voice, “we shall grieve at your departure.”

Fool of a Duke that he was! Blind, crass and most fatuous of wooers! Had he been bred in courts and his ears attuned to words that meant nothing, that were but the empty echoes of what should have been meant; was he so new to courtesies in which the heart had no share, that those words of Valentina's must bring him down upon his knees beside her, to take her dainty fingers in his fat hands, and to become transformed into a boorish lover of the most outrageous type?

“Shall you so?” he lisped, his glance growing mighty amorous. “Shall you indeed grieve?”

She rose abruptly to her feet.

“I beg that your Highness will rise,” she enjoined him coldly, a coldness which changed swiftly to alarm as her endeavours to release her hand proved vain. For despite her struggles he held on stoutly. This was mere coyness, he assured himself, mere maidenly artifice which he must bear with until he had overcome it for all time.

“My lord, I implore you!” she continued. “Bethink you of where you are—of who you are.”

“Here will I stay until the crack of doom,” he answered, with an odd mixture of humour, ardour and ferocity, “unless you consent to listen to me.”

“I am ready to listen, my lord,” she answered, without veiling a repugnance that he lacked the wit to see. “But it is not necessary that you should hold my hand, nor fitting that you should kneel.”

“Not fitting?” he exclaimed. “Lady, you do not apprehend me rightly. Is it not fitting that all of us—be we princes or vassals—shall kneel sometimes?”

“At your prayers, my lord, yes, most fitting.”

“And is not a man at his prayers when he woos? What fitter shrine in all the world than his mistress's feet?”

“Release me,” she commanded, still struggling. “Your Highness grows tiresome and ridiculous.”

“Ridiculous?”

His great, sensual mouth fell open. His white cheeks grew mottled, and his little eyes looked up with a mighty evil gleam in their cruel blue. A moment he stayed so, then he rose up. He released her hands as she had bidden him, but he clutched her arms instead, which was yet worse.

“Valentina,” he said, in a voice that was far from steady, “why do you use me thus unkindly?”

“But I do not,” she protested wearily, drawing back with a shudder from the white face that was so near her own, inspiring her with a loathing she could not repress. “I would not have your Highness look foolish, and you cannot conceive how——”

“Can you conceive how deeply, how passionately I love you?” he broke in, his grasp tightening.

“My lord, you are hurting me!”

“And are you not hurting me?” he snarled. “What is a pinched arm when compared with such wounds as your eyes are dealing me? Are you not——”

She had twisted from his grasp, and in a bound she had reached the window-door through which her attendants had passed.

“Valentina!” he cried, as he sprang after her, and it was more like the growl of a beast than the cry of a lover. He caught her, and with scant ceremony he dragged her back into the room.

At this, her latent loathing, contempt and indignation rose up in arms. Never had she heard tell of a woman of her rank being used in this fashion. She abhorred him, yet she had spared him the humiliation of hearing it from her lips, intending to fight for her liberty with her uncle. But now, since he handled her as though she had been a serving-wench; since he appeared to know nothing of the deference due to her, nothing of the delicacies of people well-born and well-bred, she would endure his odious love-making no further. Since he elected to pursue his wooing like a clown, the high-spirited daughter of Urbino promised herself that in like fashion would she deal with him.

Swinging herself free from his grasp a second time, she caught him a stinging buffet on the ducal cheek which—so greatly did it take him by surprise—all but sent him sprawling.

“Madonna!” he panted. “This indignity to me!”

“And what indignities have not I suffered at your hands?” she retorted, with a fierceness of glance before which he recoiled. And as she now towered before him, a beautiful embodiment of wrath, he knew not whether he loved her more than he feared her, yet the desire to possess her and to tame her was strong within him.

“Am I a baggage of your camps,” she questioned furiously, “to be so handled by you? Do you forget that I am the niece of Guidobaldo, a lady of the house of Rovere, and that from my cradle I have known naught but the respect of all men, be they born never so high? That to such by my birth I have the right? Must I tell you in plain words, sir, that though born to a throne, your manners are those of a groom? And must I tell you, ere you will realise it, that no man to whom with my own lips I have not given the right, shall set hands upon me as you have done?”

Her eyes flashed, her voice rose, and higher raged the storm; and Gian Maria was so tossed and shattered by it that he could but humbly sue for pardon.

“What shall it signify that I am a Duke,” he pleaded timidly, “since I am become a lover? What is a Duke then? He is but a man, and as the meanest of his subjects his love must take expression. For what does love know of rank?”

She was moving towards the window again, and for all that he dared not a second time arrest her by force, he sought by words to do so.

“Madonna,” he exclaimed, “I implore you to hear me. In another hour I shall be in the saddle, on my way to Babbiano.”

“That, sir,” she answered him, “is the best news I have heard since your coming.” And without waiting for his reply, she stepped through the open window on to the terrace.

For a second he hesitated, a sense of angry humiliation oppressing his wits. Then he started to follow her; but as he reached the window the little crook-backed figure of Ser Peppe stood suddenly before him with a tinkle of bells, and a mocking grin illumining his face.

“Out of the way, fool,” growled the angry Duke. But the odd figure in its motley of red and black continued where it stood.

“If it is Madonna Valentina you seek,” said he, “behold her yonder.”

And Gian Maria, following the indication of Peppe's lean finger, saw that she had rejoined her ladies and that thus his opportunity of speaking with her was at an end. He turned his shoulder upon the jester, and moved ponderously towards the door by which he had originally entered the room. It had been well for Ser Peppe had he let him go. But the fool, who loved his mistress dearly, and had many of the instincts of the faithful dog, loving where she loved and hating where she hated, could not repress the desire to send a gibe after the retreating figure, and inflict another wound in that much wounded spirit.

“You find it a hard road to Madonna's heart, Magnificent,” he called after him. “Where your wisdom is blind be aided by the keen eyes of folly.”

The Duke stood still. A man more dignified would have left that treacherous tongue unheeded. But Dignity and Gian Maria were strangers. He turned, and eyed the figure that now followed him into the room.

“You have knowledge to sell,” he guessed contemptuously.

“Knowledge I have—a vast store—but none for sale, Lord Duke. Such as imports you I will bestow if you ask me, for no more than the joy of beholding you smile.”

“Say on,” the Duke bade him, without relaxing the grimness that tightened his flabby face.

Peppe bowed.

“It were an easy thing, most High and Mighty, to win the love of Madonna if——” He paused dramatically.

“Yes, yes. E dunque! If——?”

“If you had the noble countenance, the splendid height, the shapely limbs, the courtly speech and princely manner of one I wot of.”

“Are you deriding me?” the Duke questioned, unbelieving.

“Ah, no, Highness! I do but tell you how it were possible that my lady might come to love you. Had you those glorious attributes of him I speak of, and of whom she dreams, it might be easy. But since God fashioned you such as you are—gross of countenance, fat and stunted of shape, boorish of——”

With a roar the infuriated Duke was upon him. But the fool, as nimble of legs as he was of tongue, eluded the vicious grasp of those fat hands, and leaping through the window, ran to the shelter of his mistress's petticoats.